Jay Copp 2014-10-17 11:44:35
Who was our founder? Why he matters today. We’ll begin at the ending, the very end. Melvin Jones rests in peace at Mt. Hope Cemetery near Chicago. His impressive marble slab sits on small hill shaded by trees. The familiar Lions logo is engraved between the third and fourth lines of the inscription, which is simple but surely poignant for the visitors who come from across the United States and as far as India and Australia. Melvin Jones 1879-1961 Founder Lions International The cemetery is mostly for ordinary folks with mundane markers, but on one side of Melvin’s hill is a massive four-columned crypt, the size of a suburban garage. “Swift” is emblazoned across the facade. That’s Swift as in the titan who built a meatpacking empire. Melvin built the world’s largest service group. Thankfully, befitting a man of service and not a captain of industry, Melvin’s marker, 5 feet wide and 3 feet tall, is dignified but not ostentatious. The cemetery makes no bones about its famous dead. Affixed to a rail on the cemetery’s front gate are a colored Lions logo and a placard that says “Site of Melvin Jones Memorial.” A rail on the other side bears the Rotary logo and a sign with “Paul Harris,” the founder of the service club also based near Chicago. Incredibly, two legendary figures, who spearheaded the spectacular growth of two service clubs more similar than different, now rest for eternity eerily close to each another. Asked who gets more visitors, a cemetery office worker chuckles and merely smiles. By all accounts, Melvin was larger than life, especially in the earlier half of his life as he grew Lions. Affable and gregarious, he convinced men from disparate businessmen’s groups to unite and call themselves Lions. Even more remarkable, Melvin turned the concept of a businessmen’s club upside down. Melvin was a genuine maverick. The general facts of his life are well-documented. We also know about his vibrant personality and his achievements. We know far less about his character and motivation. He is something of an enigma. What sort of thunderbolt struck him? What kind of man was he to radically rethink a staple of American society? A gentle breeze wafts through the trees at the cemetery and flutters their leaves. Clumps of mourners dot the distance. Fresh flowers adorn grave after grave. This cemetery is as much for the living as for the dead. So it is with Melvin, still relevant. The past is not dead; it’s not even past, declared Faulkner. Lions Clubs International (LCI) has continued to grow and flourish in the more than half-century since he passed. Perhaps in discovering who Melvin Jones really was and what motivated him Lions can better understand their role and more adroitly chart their future. We’ve come to Flossmoor, just south of Chicago. A half dozen Lions are milling about a driveway of an attractive, contemporary home on a tree-lined street. Melvin moved to the suburb in the 1940s and transferred his membership from Chicago Central to the Homewood Flossmoor Club. There is an extra urgency to the visit. The story we’ve heard is that Melvin’s home will be torn down soon and replaced with a nicer home. But confusion reigns as to what home was Melvin’s. Next door to the attractive home is a dilapidated home with the precise address listed as Melvin’s in LCI’s records. The Lions spoke to the younger man who lived there and he said, no, he didn’t know of a Melvin Jones having lived there. The owner of the attractive home, a businessman dressed for work, is huddling with the Lions. Though he has to leave for work, he’s supremely gracious. He’ll get to the bottom of this. He talks to his wife. He gets on his cell to call his neighbors. Finally, he figures it out. “My home was built in 1969. Melvin did live here, but his house was torn down.” Our hearts sink. A clue to Melvin’s identity, a link to him, has dried up. Then a public works van happens to drive by. “Hey, Kevin,” a Lion hails him. The Lions explain the situation to him. “I’ll see what I can find out,” Kevin shouts and then drives away. Longtime staffers at Lions headquarters in Oak Brook outside of Chicago have met elderly Lions either at headquarters or an international convention who once met Melvin. The encounters were basically the same: Melvin visited their club, briefly spoke, chatted amiably, inducted a member or two and vanished. It was a thrilling, memorable moment that came and went. The paper trail of Melvin is scant. A copy of the “Last Will and Testament of Melvin Jones” sits in a file cabinet in Oak Brook. The simple, two-page document left his assets “to my beloved wife, Lillian M. Radigan Jones.” Supplementary pages named nine surviving relatives. Besides Lillian, the survivors were a sister, three half-sisters and four nieces and nephews. All are long dead or believed to be dead. The past can be dauntingly elusive. Open a historical door and out pops–nothing. Melvin’s original club was the Chicago Central Lions Club. Alas, its records could not outlast the march of time. In the 1970s its club room was part of the Illinois Athletic Club in downtown Chicago. “Unbeknownst to club members, the Illinois Athletic Club undertook a renovation project in which all of Chicago Central’s records, supplies, charter, artifacts and files were destroyed,” reports Secretary Richard Carlson in an email. But Melvin did leave a few things behind at LCI; we can actually rummage through his drawers–his desk drawers. In his desk were well-thumbed magazines and books, surely a solid indication of his interests. There are multiple copies of Reader’s Digest, Magazine Digest and Photo Facts, yet another monthly roundup of current issues and concerns. Melvin, a busy man, took it upon himself to be wellrounded and up-to-date. Broad social issues and citizenship also concerned him. His books include “America and the Refugees,” “Doctors, Dollars and Disease,” “How Good Are Our Colleges?” and “Making Americans.” Befitting someone called upon to make frequent speeches and to be an oracle, Melvin owned a booklet of aphorisms. “CID Says” was penned by insurance executive C.I.D. Moore in 1927. Among the hundreds of sayings, Melvin put check marks next to a dozen or so including “nothing is so efficacious in interesting others in what you have to sell as your own enthusiasm” and “the man who knows how to work does not know want.” He checked and underlined a single maxim: “simplicity, sincerity and naturalness are elements in every great character.” Melvin also left behind his check ledger from 1957. He bought his shirts from Marshal Fields, subscribed to six newspapers, purchased seeds for his garden and supported the Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army and a local church and college. But this was a man whose life revolved around Lions. He paid dues for six Chicago-area Lions clubs, bought 10 tickets for $1 apiece for the pancake breakfast of the Matteson Lions, kicked in $25 for the Park Forest Lions barbecue and shelled out $200 for raffle tickets for a Cadillac to benefit the Homewood Flossmoor Lions. Melvin clearly was not a man who raided the till and or took advantage of his Lions status. He paid $11.28 for an ash tray from LCI, parted with $282.75 for 400 Christmas cards from LCI and even paid $32 for two couples for a charter night dinner, where he presumably was the guest of honor. His checkbook also discloses his LCI salary. He took home $10,300 after taxes, the equivalent of $87,000 today, not pauper’s wages but hardly a princely sum either considering who he was. If Melvin were an executive today for LCI or most large nonprofits, he’d want to demand a hefty raise. A person’s checkbook is a measure of character. Still, who was he? Melvin lived in the era before modern, longform journalism in which habits are described, character traits revealed and personalities assessed. Newspaper and magazine stories reveal few telling details. Articles portray him as a stock figure. A Time piece in 1958 can’t avoid stereotyping him as a cheerleader, a shiny, happy man leading shiny, happy people: “Jones injected a cubbish mood by teaching the boys to sing such rousing tunes as the official ‘Roar, Lion, Roar’ at almost any meal.” Most known photos of Melvin show an elderly man with white hair, bookish wire-rim glasses and a wry smile. Those who met Melvin and remember him are now seniors themselves. Chuck Lantry, a Homewood Flossmoor Lion, sometimes attended his father’s meetings as a boy of 4 or 5. His father even drove Melvin home occasionally. “I just remember him as a very distinguished gentleman,” says Lantry, a silver-haired attorney. With a smile, he adds that the Lions’ meetings did not exactly render him alert and observant for the ride home. “I was usually half-asleep by 8 or 9 o’clock,” he says. Lion Morris Kugler, 75, is a surgeon in Sparta, Illinois, a short jaunt from St. Louis. History has had a way of intruding into his life. His backyard backs up onto an airfield from which Charles Lindbergh once regularly took off and landed. Kugler met Melvin when he was a 14-year-old Boy Scout. Kugler’s father, Morris, was an international director from 1954 to 1956, and Melvin stayed overnight in their modest home. “That’s how it was back then. There were no hotels, no highways,” says the loquacious Kugler. “My dad was all over southern Illinois helping to start clubs.” The Kuglers weren’t rich by any measure, but his father ran an independent phone company and traveled in circles with notable people like the Illinois governor. The young Kugler knew little about Lions but quickly understood that a special guest lodged with them. “I knew this was a significant event for my family. It was like having a U.S. senator or governor at our house,” he says. Melvin, though probably exhausted, was pleasant at the breakfast table. “He was friendly,” says Kugler. Making more of an impression were his distinctive looks. Maybe it was because Melvin was a celebrity of sorts, but the young Kugler identified their guest with two actors he saw, one in the movies and one in advertisements. “There was this benign German guy who was in movies, and there was Smilin’ Ed McConnell, who pushed Buster Brown shoes. It must be the similarities–the heavy jowls, the curly hair, the round specs,” he says. All these years later, Kugler himself is curious as to what motivated Melvin. The talk gets around to his death and his funeral services at a Chicago church. That strikes Kugler as significant. “So what denomination was he?” For the record, services were held for Melvin at the Chicago Temple, a United Methodist church. No one remembers if Melvin attended church regularly or got down on his knees at night in prayer, and Lions Clubs is strictly non-sectarian. But it’s worth knowing that his denomination has a long record of concern for the downtrodden. Melvin is a riddle but Chicago in 1917 can be easily conjured. Life was often hellacious. Overseas, tens of thousands of peach-fuzzed men were madly charging from trenches to their deaths. In the city, impoverished immigrants lived cheek to jowl. Children toiled in factories. The blind and those with disabilities were shunned or shunted aside. Racial tensions flared. Social reformer Jane Addams had opened Hull House to give the poor a lifeline to a better life. Her efforts to uplift the poor were so impressive– and social conditions so abysmal–that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Reformers, preachers and novelists blasted the nation for shortchanging its citizens, and businessmen’s groups particularly endured scorn. Writer Sinclair Lewis memorably satirized the self-serving, pompous members of a businessman’s club in “Babbitt,” published five years after Melvin founded Lions in 1917. Lions were too small and unknown to be the particular target of Lewis. And Melvin’s purpose was in direct opposition to the self-absorbed gladhanders mocked by Lewis. Melvin was 31, married and headed his successful insurance agency when he joined the Business Circle in Chicago in 1913. Ordinary was the best way to describe him. “Melvin Jones was probably the last man in the world anybody would have picked out as a crusader, reformer, uplifter or organizer,” wrote Robert Casey and W.A.S. Douglas in 1949 in “The World’s Biggest Doers,” a book copyrighted by LCI and surely vetted by Melvin. In 1913, across the city and throughout the nation, accountants, bankers and hardware men were eating, meeting and trading business and referrals. Even so-called service clubs paid scant attention to helping others and instead typically made some token donations to charity while paying utmost attention to members’ business gains. The Business Circle was upfront about its purpose. Its motto was “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” The group was a respectable, routine tool for self-enhancement. The only problem was that it was losing steam. Members were defecting to more active clubs. Its membership of 200 had plummeted to 39. Melvin took it upon himself to revive the club and within months was elected secretary. Attendance picked up. Enthused with his leadership role, Melvin put more time into it, drawing the ire of his wife. “You’re working yourself to death for somebody else without pay,” she complained. Still, Melvin spent even more hours on building the club. An idea began to take shape that would distinguish the Business Circle from other businessman’s clubs and enable it to join forces with clubs far and wide. Eight flags wave near the entrance of Lions headquarters. The flags are rotated daily to ensure all 209 Lions nations are represented periodically. Melvin remains a visible presence at headquarters. His office at the former downtown Chicago location of LCI has been re-created in Oak Brook. Off the main lobby, behind glass, are his rugged desk, a too-realistic lion rug and assorted artifacts. In the early 1920s, Melvin gave up the Melvin Jones Insurance Agency and devoted himself full-time to Lions. Every weekday and sometimes on weekends he was at Lions headquarters, overseeing the continued expansion of Lions. Lions clubs proliferated in the 1920s. By the end of the decade every state had one, as did nearly every province in Canada. Mexico and China also had clubs. Membership stood at 80,000, and Lions’ headquarters in downtown Chicago employed a staff of 33. Stories of Melvin still linger in the air at headquarters. Staffers with 30 or 40 years under their belt once worked with staffers who worked at headquarters for 30 or 40 years– back to the time of Melvin. He apparently had–brace yourself– flaws. He could be ornery, imperious and vainglorious. Of course, these are stories that have been passed on through multiple people. It’s like the game of telephone–stories tend to change the more they are told. And what head honcho, or any leader, for that matter, is not subject to the most exacting standards? To lead is to draw critical appraisal. One thing that is certain is that Melvin was not afraid to innovate and take risks. Chicago Central Lions retain a speech to the club in 1946 by a founding Lion and onetime Business Circle member. It reveals Melvin’s genius for blazing new trails. Maury Blink told how “there was no show of fellowship” at the meetings of the Business Circle, which were humdrum affairs. As secretary of the resurgent club, Melvin “asked for suggestions” to liven up the gatherings. A former choir member, Blink volunteered to lead singing. Thus was born, eventually anyway, the singing Lions. Curiously, Melvin never served as international president. But he was held in high honor, demonstrated most convincingly in 1958 when convention delegates affectionately conferred up him the title “secretary general for life,” and he wielded considerable influence in the affairs of LCI until he died. Melvin Jones knew the men killed in the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, and he was outraged by the shooting. “Neither Ike Clanton nor his brother Billie nor Frank and Tom McLowery had killed anyone or robbed any stage. As officers of the law the Earps had no legal right or excuse for killing them the way they did,” Melvin Wiley Jones furiously wrote. Melvin Jones’ uncle, Melvin Wiley Jones, was a peace constable who knew the participants in the famous gun battle of 1881. Melvin was 2 then. Yet, like his namesake uncle, he indeed was part of the Old West. He was born in Fort Thomas, Arizona, and his father was Calvin Jones, who fought in bloody battles against Native Americans. Melvin’s boyhood memories were of horses and blue-clad troopers, bugles and war cries, wagon trains and impoverished settlers. Melvin’s father commanded scouts under General Nelson Miles, a famous Indian fighter. Melvin was born just three years after General Custer’s troops were routed. Cochise and Geronimo and their braves clashed with troops during his boyhood. When Melvin was 7, his father was transferred to a new post far from the fighting, and his mother later moved to St. Louis with Melvin and her other children and then Quincy, Illinois, for better schooling. What effect did growing up in war-like conditions have on Melvin? He sometimes talked about his mother’s fears about the fighting so close to their home and her children. One would like to think that even at a young age Melvin sensed the advantages of banding together and looking out for one another. Years later, while many of his business colleagues were hellbent on pursuing their own interests, something in Melvin may have nudged him toward reaching out to others in solidarity instead. Growing into a man, Melvin zigzagged his way through school. He took a course at a business college. He studied law for a while and considered a career in music. “I couldn’t decide to be a lawyer or a tenor. My voice had made me pretty popular in school,” he was quoted in a story in the LION published after his death. He decided against law and music and instead got a job at Johnson & Higgins in Chicago. By 1913 he was the sole owner of the insurance agency. In 1909, Melvin had wooed and married a pretty Chicago woman. If Melvin intended to make a name for himself, he had a ways to go to catch up to the renown of his wife. Rose Amanda Freeman was a spectacular golfer. She capped her career by winning the National Women’s Open Title in 1925. A search of newspaper databases in the 1920s, when Lions clubs exploded, show far more stories on Rose than Melvin. How did her fame affect the psyche and drive of Melvin, especially in an era where women stayed home and stayed out of the spotlight? The two remained married until she died in 1954. Two years later, Melvin married his neighbor, a cultured woman named Lillian Radigan. His second marriage went well. But Melvin never put aside his memories of Rose. In his desk at LCI were tattered newspaper clippings from the 1930s detailing her exploits. Honor Melvin’s Birthday January 13 is Melvin Jones’ birthday, and International President Joe Preston is asking Lions to honor his birthday by performing an act of service. Preston filmed the video appeal about our founder’s birthday at the Melvin Jones International Memorial in Fort Thomas, Arizona, where he was born in 1879. Preston is an Arizona resident. View the short video in the digital LION at lionmagazine.org. Under Melvin’s leadership, Lions Clubs grew by leaps and bounds. Membership stood at 117,000 by 1940 and more than doubled to 279,116 by 1946. Service clubs were no longer mocked, but they weren’t exactly taken seriously. Media stories focused on members’ sociability. The Time story in 1958 on the Chicago convention began: “Lions are the friendliest people, enthused Harvey (‘They call me Cookie’) Cook. … Everybody had a name tag on them. You look and see the name and greet him, say, ‘Hi ya doin!’ Cook’s extra big ‘Keep Smiling’ button flashed gaily from his purple and gold vest.” Despite the impulse to stereotype, the Time reporter actually got it right. He nailed what Lions were about in hailing the 79-year-old Melvin for getting the ball rolling: “In those days the luncheon club was primarily a meeting place for businessmen who wanted to meet businessmen. Rotary’s pin was reserved for the town’s leading man in each line of business; second-ranking Kiwanis, later tagged ‘the grey flannel suit boys’ by Lions, used ‘We Trade’ as its motto and admitted only two members from each recognized local enterprise. Old Monarch Jones opened his new clubs’ rolls to anybody a chapter voted to invite, made community service rather than business the organization’s avowed goal.” Even the backslapping Cookie understands what Lions are about. The Time story ends with this observation of the merry Lion from Beechview, Pennsylvania: “One human being helping another–that’s Lionism. Service to humanity–that’s Lionism. It makes you feel good.” Still, the Time article missed the larger story. The sad truth is that profound social events can go almost unnoticed and unreported. Consider the great migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities, which transformed the North and South. That occurred over a span of decades without denting the national consciousness. So it was with the explosive growth of social organizations in the first half of the 20th century, argues sociologist Robert Putnam. Social groups such as Lions, Kiwanis and Rotary, as well as the PTA, church and political groups and even bowling leagues, created “social capital,” community bonds that uplifted families, communities and society. By joining together people did much more than enrich their social lives; they enriched their entire way of life. Democracy and wealth were enhanced when people organized around common bonds and interests. Melvin could not have guessed he was a leading part of a rising wave of societal participation, of course. He was preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of building a new association. His first bold idea was to unite the Business Circle with other businessman’s clubs. He wrote hundreds of letters to clubs nationwide asking them to form a national association. Interest grew. On June 7, 1917, 20 delegates representing 27 clubs from different parts of the United States met at Hotel LaSalle in Chicago. On hand were representatives from the Optimists, the Reciprocity Clubs, the Wheels, the Concordia Club of Omaha, the Business and Professional Men of St. Paul, the Cirgonians of Los Angeles, the Vortex from St. Louis and Detroit, and the Royal Order of Lions of Indiana, an association of 27 clubs. At Melvin’s urging, the various representatives agreed to unite. The sticking point was a name; each group favored its own. Anticipating this roadblock, Melvin had done some shrewd cloakroom campaigning. He knew he had to forgo keeping the name of the Business Circle if he expected other groups to give up their names. He lobbied for “Lions.” That group in Indiana was not only a large faction, but to Melvin the lion stood for courage, strength, fidelity and vital action. On a secret ballot the “Association of Lions Clubs” won out. Everyone was happy but the Optimists, who walked out in a huff. Melvin’s other crucial decision was to dedicate the association to service. The Lions Objects and Code of Ethics, drafted months later at the first convention in Dallas, Texas, on Oct. 8, prohibited the pursuit of self-interest. Object #6 holds that “no club shall hold out as one of its objects financial benefits to its members.” The #5 code in the Code of Ethics reads: “To hold friendship as an end and not as a means. To hold that true friendship exists not on account of the service performed by one to another, but that true friendship demands nothing but accepts service in the spirit in which it is given.” The Business Circle was kaput. In a few years Melvin would quit his insurance business. The gifted salesman would dedicate his life to channeling the desire of people to serve their communities. “He was a skillful organizer, imbued with a deep sense of duty he probably inherited from his soldier father,” concludes Glenn Kittler in “The Dynamic World of Lions International,” published in 1968. Kittler interviewed headquarters staff and Lions who knew Melvin well. “It had irked him to be part of a group which, however select, convened merely for the purpose of personal profit. He found himself thinking, ‘What if these men, who are successful because of their drive, intelligence and ambition, were put to work helping improve the community?’” We’re still waiting in the driveway in Flossmoor, wondering about Melvin’s home, when Kevin Long, the foreman of the village’s public works department, returns. He’s waving a paper. “I think I found what you need,” he says. He’s photocopied a permit to build a garage signed by Melvin Jones on Aug. 8, 1941. The address is the dilapidated home. Within minutes the owners of that home drive up. “This was his [Melvin’s] home,” confirms Rosalie Havens. She and her husband, George, purchased it in the 1960s after he died. “We couldn’t figure out what was going on at first. We had people from India and all over stop here. ‘Why are they at our house?’” she recalls. The home is on its last legs. It’s large but ordinary and could never have qualified as opulent. The home is further evidence that Melvin did not get rich from Lions. In the back, affixed to a wall, Rosalie shows the Lions an ironic plaque they found at a flea market: “On this site in 1897 nothing happened.” The Havens are quite familiar with Lions. Turns out that Rosalie’s relatives were members of the Flossmoor Club. The Lions chat amiably about mutual friends, old Melvin and the club’s projects. Not far away is the library, a frequent beneficiary of the club, and the community pool built by Lions. One of the checks Melvin wrote in 1957 was for the pool. In one sense, Melvin would likely be astonished by the current makeup of Lions. “I think he’d be surprised by a woman like me,” says Sue Larsen, 2013-14 club president. He’d also be gratified by the expansion of Lions. “I think the international scope of it–it met his dream,” says Michael Schassburger. Does the good people do live after them? Kugler, whose family hosted Melvin overnight, is certain the Lions’ founder did not encourage him to become a Lion when he grew up. But here he is–a Lion. The opportunity was there, and he seized it. He also recently helped invite 45 ophthalmologists and optometrists in southern Illinois to join Lions. Melvin may not have asked him to consider Lions, but Kugler’s so convinced of the value of membership that he doesn’t hesitate to add to the rolls. Lantry, who fell asleep in the back seat when his dad drove Melvin home from meetings, wasn’t allowed to doze his way through childhood: as a boy he worked alongside his father and other Lions in doing maintenance and painting at the pool. Melvin never pitched him on Lions, but just the same he became a Lion. Since 1982, he’s cooked pasta, fried steaks, sold pickles on a stick, rose at an ungodly hour on Candy Day to catch the earliest commuters at the train station and targeted the right people and filled out the necessary forms for dram shop insurance or other paperwork needed for club projects. Melvin receded in Lantry’s distant boyhood memories, yet his grand idea helped shape his adult life. “Lions kept me involved in the community. Our club has definitely made an impact,” he says. So do you believe in ghosts or spirits? What exactly do we mean by the “spirit of service”? We’ll end where we began–at Melvin’s grave. Two years ago Angel D’Souza, in her early 20s, stood at the plot with her father, then District Governor Terry. They came for a ceremony with then International President Wayne Madden of Indiana. Brief speeches were made. Heads were bowed. Thoughts percolated. Melvin began building Lions Clubs in the age of discovery and adventure, an era where the Poles were explored. But he ventured inward, toward the heart and soul. He understood that people were about more than just selfinterest. Times change. People? Not so much. “Young lady, has anyone ever asked you to be a Lion?” Madden asked Angel, who shook her head no. So nearly atop the grave of Melvin, Angel, nearly shaking with excitement, took the oath. Digital LION Melvin was a frequent contributor to the LION, often ruminating on the ideals and practices of Lions or exhorting members to rally behind a cause. • Melvin congratulates a Chicago-area club on doubling its membership (November 1922 LION). • Melvin expounds on the value of singing at meetings (April 1927). • “Victory shall be ours” predicts the Lions’ patriarch as World War II begins (January 1942).
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